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How to Treat & Prevent a Sunburned Scalp

By Amalah

I noticed that in your latest column about dandruff, you never mentioned that it might not be dandruff at all, but a sunburned scalp. I don’t know about other people, but I know that if I don’t cover up where my hair is parted, it’s going to burn, flake, and imitate dandruff. I can’t always wear a hat or headscarf to cover it up, and if I brush my hair backwards into a ponytail, temporarily covering all of my scalp, it still “falls” into a center-parted style. So I end up with a sunburned head.
Are there are any good sunblock products for scalps? I’m already sunblocking my body and my face, so why not bring it all the way up to the top of my head?
– Anna

While I don’t think sunburned scalp was the answer for our dandruff sufferer (it sounded too chronic, too pervasive and redness wasn’t a big issue), this IS a timely question, as guess what happened to me this weekend at the beach? OW.
In the rush of trying to pack everything that a toddler might possibly need for a beach vacation (including back-up rain activities and the classic Picky Eater Bag of Groceries Because Who Knows, They Might Serve Linguini Instead of Spaghetti, Oh, The Horror), I forgot my hat at home. I stayed mostly in the shade of our beach umbrella, but alas, I burned through the thin baby hair of my hairline and along my part. Did I mention the OW?
A sunburned scalp is annoying, but did you know it also damages your hair follicles and affects the health of newly-growing hair? So if you’re chronically burning there now, at some point you’re going to be stuck with really unhealthy hair that breaks easily. So no matter how much you hate hats and scarves, WEAR THEM whenever you’re spending long periods of time in the sun. (Or in our case this weekend, long periods of time in the hazy morning fog, which made my head EXPLODE when I noticed that dozens of people waited until the haze burned off to start applying their sunblock. OH MY GOD, YOU PEOPLE. HAZE IS NOT UV PROTECTION.)
So yes, a hat or other head covering is the best way to prevent your scalp from burning. Pulling your hair back in a ponytail can work, provided you use a styling product or barrette to keep your part from…uh, parting, like you mentioned. I’ve also got a strong, ponytail-and-clip resistant part, so I usually add a snappy barrette up front to keep it together, or I slip on a wide fabric headband. Maybe not the most attractive things in the world, but they work.
If you absolutely cannot wear a hat or headband or any other scalp-protecting accessory, a spray sunblock is usually your best bet. They’re still greasy, but go on clear instead of white and goopy. (Although MAN do they run out quickly, especially if you reapply outside, in the wind — you waste SO MUCH PRODUCT ARGH.) Spray it onto your fingers and then dab it along your part and hairline.
shiseido.jpgA few products out there claim to be non-greasy and formulated for scalps and hair, but I’ve never personally used them. If you’re curious, check out Sundition Scalp Sunscreen or Shiseido Refreshing Sun Protection Spray SPF 15.
While we’re tangentially on the subject — what about sun protection for your actual hair? Well, I’ve read conflicting advice on this. Technically, your hair is dead tissue beyond a few growing cells at the base of the root. There’s really nothing for the sun to “burn.” And I personally think most of the summer “damage” many of us see is more from chlorine, saltwater, sweat and some extra drying effects of the weather (i.e. we need to switch to a richer conditioner for the season), not actual “sun damage.” And yet check out Sephora’s stash of sun protectant sprays for hair, all claiming various claims of thermal protection and UV protection and sun reflectivityosis. So while I would never recommend y’all hit the beach with a giant bottle of Sun-In and skip the deep conditioner at the end of the day, some of the “sun protection for hair” stuff seems a bit snake-oily to me. But hey, I can’t completely knock something I’ve never tried. (Although I CAN warn you that 99% of those sprays do NOT contain any actual ingredients proven to protect your skin from UV rays, so do NOT use these to protect your scalp unless it’s labeled with an actual SPF level.)
And finally, what to do about an already-burned scalp? If it’s a really bad burn, take some ibuprofen. Spray some Solarcaine or rub a fragrance-free moisturizer on your part before bed. Try to avoid blow-drying, rough-bristled brushes (use the plastic rubber-tipped kind instead) and tight, hair-tugging ponytails. And keep your hair as product-free as possible, since most of them contain alcohol that will only make the drying and peeling worse.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • angela

    July 31, 2008 at 12:22 pm

    I burnt my scalp at the beach last week. Same reasons as you, trying to get the toddler together. My head itches, oh does it itch.

  • The Muse

    July 31, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    The only reason I use any of the sun protect-stuff for my actual hair (as opposed to my scalp) is because I’m not a natural red-head (gasp!). Red hair dye tends to fade the fastest, and one of those contributors is UV exposure. I spend a good bit of time outside in the sun (training for a marathon… oy), and I prefer to run hat-less, so this is the next-best thing.
    I have noticed less fading and more time between color appointments, now that I remember to use this stuff frequently… and it was only $10 at CVS (Christoph brand, maybe?).

  • Olivia

    July 31, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    I agree the first line of scalp protection is a hat, followed by spray sunscreen. However, the spray sunscreens don’t seem to protect as well when you’re out on the water all day. And it’s harder to tell if you got all exposed areas with them.

  • Keri G

    August 1, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    What about putting the dry sunblock for your face on your part? It won’t be greasy or anything… Worth a shot!

  • Colleen

    August 3, 2008 at 1:03 pm

    I have a spray leave-in conditioner from the Grund line called “smooth” and it contains SPF 15 and claims to help block saltwater and chlorine. I’ve used it without any greasy issues, even on top of my already washed-conditioned-dried-styled hair when I’m going to be at the pool or the beach. I’ve also used it on my strawberry-blonde boy to protect his scalp as young as 10months, and even though he has sensitive skin, it never bothered him (he only now, at age 4, will wear a hat without throwing a fit–seems my younger boy is following his footsteps).
    I get it from my stylist, but I think you can find a salon or other distributor on their site ( if you can’t find one in your area. I can’t recall the price, since I bought this bottle 4 years ago and only use it when I, or my kids, are going to be out in the sun, but it still works and I have noticed that it keeps my hair from getting dried-out from the pool and no more burnt scalp.

  • Stephanie

    July 20, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    I recently burned my scalp during a tournament for my soccer team and i was wondering if there are any cheap hair spf products that also have sweat-resistant formulas. – i can’t style my hair differently without it coming out or being against the rules (ie using clips and bobby pins) I’ve never had this happen before but i was wondering if there are any recommendations.

  • Anne

    October 23, 2014 at 10:38 am

    Delighted that you all are paying attention to scalp sun exposure for yourselves and your children. After years of ocean-going, tennis, golf and simply living in Southern California sunshine, I was diagnosed yesterday with a squamous cell carcinoma on the top of my head! It can be surgically-removed and the space closed and I will begin exploring your ideas for sunscreen for my sun-damaged scalp, but I appreciate your awareness and conversation. An ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.

  • Chris

    July 10, 2015 at 2:58 am

    Is there a way to recover damaged hair follicles? I have a bald spot, and I’m wondering if there’s a way to recover them or if it’s too late and I will always have a bald spot.